film review: Le Scaphandre and le Papillon [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly]

In Le Scaphandre and le Papillon, filmmaker Julian Schnabel uses an artisan’s eye in adapting this true story of former French Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominque Bauby [Mathieu Amalric]. It’s the rare inspirational and imaginative film about relinquishing the fight and striving for more. Using his deft eye and expressive palette, Schnabel makes a film that is both impressive avant-garde film making and a striking story. One or the other should appeal to most.

After a myocardial infarction, Bauby is completely paralyzed except for his right eye. He finds himself in a rehabilitation facility on the French coast. With the help of a speech therapist and physical therapist he makes some progress. Those around him want him to communicate and with a slow careful process he does. One day, Bauby decides he is not longer going to sulk in self-pity. Bauby says: “I have not lost two things: my imagination and my memory.” In these, he can subsist for quite some time. Many of us don’t possess such enviable, colorful ones that he can peruse in his mind.

With the help of a patient transcriber, by blinking his eye he writes a book about his experience. During flashbacks, we see the effervescent editor at work, at play and with his children. At forty, with two small children and an impressive career as editor for one of the top magazines in France and around the world, Bauby was living life as fast as his designer sport car. Le Scaphandre and le Papillon is the title of the book he ends of writing and as he pens the book in his mind, we journey with him through past experiences with his father [a small act of shaving his father brings out many layers in patriarchal relationships], his lover [we never really see her face and this is so effective; she’s a dream within a dream] and his family [the children admire their father so much]. In present day, his children visit and understandably don’t quite know how to react, especially his son, but do their best as small children will.

Much of the film is in Bauby’s one-eyed viewpoint which allows viewers to really get into his experience and heart. Schnabel creatively translates the written word to the screen. With the use of colors, innovative camera angles and unusual marking and editing, this is a visual treat unlike anything else out there in theatres right now. It’s only on a few small screens but it’s worth seeking it out. The title is clunky, Le Scaphandre and le Papillon, but is the title from Bauby’s memoir. The scaphandre [diving bell] represents being trapped inside a container and also relying on other sources beyond oneself to survive. The papillon [butterfly] is more obvious as a means to relinquish the ties that bind and to transform oneself from something unsightly to something beautiful and free.

Schnabel never allows the Le Scaphandre and le Papillon to become a sob story but instead provides empathetic moments. This is a pure, lovely film about humanity, bravery and overcoming the most unimaginable obstacle to accomplish one’s goals. Truly amazing and real. When I have a bad day, I need to pull up these uplifting images.

STEELE RECOMMENDATION: SEE IT IN THE THEATRE!

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